Ask any audio professional about their gear, and you’ll likely never hear the end of it. If you were to listen in on Unlock’s meetings, you’d be amazed how quickly things evolve into tech talks with each team member sounding off about our latest instrument finds, gear upgrades, and newly discovered production techniques.
This free flowing, enthusiastic exchange is part of what keeps us inspired and shapes our collective creative outputs, from voice recording to soundtrack composition and immersive sound design. Now, I’m happy to share our team’s gusto for gear with you.
If you’re looking to build your audio and vocal practice with better, more engaging game sound in mind, here are Unlock Audio’s recommendations for tools and resources every savvy studio or audio department needs, from the practical and pragmatic to the artistically indulgent.
A Variety of Microphones
An audio studio simply could not be without a decent collection of microphones for voice, music, and sample recording. Voice Services Director Bonnie Bogovich has a microphone in mind for practically every recording scenario, but none more versatile than the Shure MV88. She credits this microphone as her favorite piece of gear for its portability, power, and surprising programmability.
By simply plugging this mic into an iDevice (iPhone or iPad) equipped with the free Shure app, the MV88 allows us to record in a variety of strategic ways: omnidirectionally, cardioid for more focused capture, or bidirectionally (as used in two-person interviews).
In Bonnie’s own words, “I have found it essential to bring an MV88 with me on road trips, to conferences, or anytime I’m going somewhere where A) I might be summoned to do an audition on the fly, B) a concert is happening and I’d love a recording of it, or C) I want to be able to capture location audio for sound banks but not bring around the more bulky Zoom H4N (which is my second favorite piece of hardware).”
Good Quality Speakers
These first recommendations may seem too obvious, but the necessity of these foundational studio assets cannot be overstated. Just as good mics are important for quality audio input, great speakers are essential for grading our audio output.
Whether you’re engineering never-before-heard sound effects, composing a raucous boss battle score, or capturing an emotional line reading for a heartbreaking story moment, it is essential to be able to trust what we hear so we can create an ideal impact that translates perfectly across different systems.
Unlock Sound Designer Jon Ruse credits good quality speakers as the most essential gear for his job. “Software can come and go, and I’m always looking for better workflows with digital audio workspaces (DAWs),” he shares. “But the one thing that remains consistent and is always a major consideration when upgrading my setup are the monitors I use to design and mix all the sound effects that go into a game. I need to trust that they give the best results and the truest idea of what something will sound like once it’s in the game.”
Room Calibration Software
Everything we hear is influenced by the space around us and where we find ourselves within that space. Room calibration software is essential for playback environments because it detects how your sound is experienced differently throughout a room and recalibrates your EQ so you hear your original signal as intended (without significant dips or peaks in frequencies) wherever you listen to it from within that room.
I calibrate my own studio space with Sonarworks Reference 4. This preparation is especially useful in the event we host group listening sessions or if I decide to indulge in my latest composition from the comfort of my lounge chair instead of being tied to the front of my studio setup.
Creativity knows no bounds when your studio is equipped with a supremely versatile synthesizer. As a composer, I need ways to lay down tracks for instruments that may not necessarily be my particular forte, so I use Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2 software, which allows me to create a full ensemble of sounds with easy and familiar hardware integrations.
The quantity and quality of Omnisphere 2’s instruments along with its navigational ease make bringing my musical vision to life far quicker than having to enlist other musicians up front. The sheer variety of samples and source materials combined with a great granular synthesizer UI make this software one of my go-tos for instrumental experimentation and discovery.
A Plethora of Plugins
Trial and experimentation are essential to good sound design, and plugins are key to transforming ordinary sounds into extraordinary soundscapes that breathe originality into our games.
The best plugins provide sound designers with both unlimited versatility and granular control when manipulating audio to meet their creative vision. For this reason alone, Jon Ruse credits Output’s Portal as his favorite piece of gear.
“Portal is an awesome plugin that brings a spark of life and creativity into virtually anything you put it on,” he says. “I love using it to create strange and abstract sounds that work perfectly in both Sci-Fi and Fantasy settings.”
Onsite Data Storage
Between sourced samples and original recordings, composers and sound designers collect and generate a massive amount of audio data that no single hard drive could contain in their highest fidelity. And while large, remote servers are a likely destination for completed asset handoff to developers, it’s far quicker and easier to work from files hosted locally.
In a surprising pick for favorite piece of gear, Unlock Composer Thomas Kresge sings his praises for the Blackmagic MultiDock (and not a musical instrument) for its invaluable impact on his daily music production for almost a decade now. This simple, plug-and-play hard drive dock provides recording artists and other game audio pros with the ability to massively expand their local file storage and more easily organize assets across multiple concurrent projects.
Cross-platform Networking Solutions
When it comes to most essential tech, Thomas offers yet another production tool that any smart studio should not do without: a cross-platform application for mixing, hosting, and routing audio across an entire computer network. This link between a DAW and peripheral computers or servers helps centralize assets, such as instrument plugins and samples, or frequently used project templates to kickstart your production.
Thomas’s most essential network application is currently Vienna Ensemble Pro (VEP). “Instead of hosting samples directly in my DAW session, VEP hosts them, and the DAW simply connects to VEP,” he says. “It’s been one of my most essential pieces of software for creating streamlined templates that can be copied across projects and songs. It has significantly sped up my workflow as well as reduced the draw on my computational resources. Everything simply runs smoother when it’s hosted through VEP, and it also means I can repurpose a preferred project setup across separate project files without having to reload every plugin or sample.”
Broader Creativity Solutions
Audio alone is not the end all be all of our creative discipline. We also often rely on other creative outlets to best realize our goal and vision for the sake of cooler, more engaging game experiences. For this reason, Bonnie aptly considers the Adobe Creative Cloud suite to be her studio essential.
“In my audio career as an editor, sound designer, and voice actor/director/casting person, I use Adobe Audition as my main DAW. It is very versatile. Many of the onboard plugins do everything I require, and at least two of the projects I was a co-editor on benefitted from us all using the same software, so it helped that I was already used to Audition,” Bonnie says. “I went to school for composition and multimedia, so I often put the other elements of Creative Cloud to use as well.”
“I’ve used Photoshop for proposals to create detailed breakdowns of how ambience would adjust across different sections of a world map, as well as working up graphics for social media and website presences,” she elaborates. “Premiere is useful in taking provided or self-captured game footage to edit into usable footage that I then design sound over. Adobe Acrobat has been super helpful in creating docusign contracts and other essential business documents, and Media Encoder is helpful in…well…it’s in the name. 😉 Back in the day I also used to do typography work in Illustrator and soon hope to dive deeper into After Effects. The point is, I use at least one piece of software offered in the Creative Cloud subscription every day. It pays for itself quickly and has been an essential tool for my brand of creativity.”